In the TV program ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ the suggestion is, that researching and learning more about our ancestors and their stories, helps us better understand our own identity. Knowing our heritage or family background gives us something to anchor ourselves to, validating and explaining personality traits, characteristics and interests as well as physical features.
But have you ever taken the time to really consider how you define your identity? Perhaps you would use one of these:
The Oxford English definition
- The fact of being who or what a person or thing is
Simple Definition of identity: Merriam Webster dictionary
- who someone is : the name of a person
- the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others
Personally I find the Oxford English dictionary definition ambiguous and misleading. Surely there’s a huge element of subjectivity in who we think we are. Yet it uses the word ‘fact’ suggesting this is not the case. It also implies that identity is fixed, which is also not the case. As individuals we choose different markers to decide ‘who we are’ at different times in our lives. Parenthood, for example will change our sense of self. Julian Baggini [Is There a Real You] argues there is no core sense of self but that we are a collective of our experiences and therefore our sense of self is fluid not fixed.
I agree in principle but still believe it’s important to identify a core sense of self for the purpose of having it to hold unto. Otherwise our identity is prey to the vagaries of our circumstances. For instance there will always be those who predominantly define their identity according to their job, financial status, looks, house and clothes etc. (transitory things over which we actually have little or no control). If, or rather when, these are lost or change there is a risk of experiencing identity crisis. ‘A period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society’ As illustrated in one of my earlier blog posts relating to an article about retired professional women.
Surely then it’s important to choose something that can be relied upon to hold firm during the winds of change that inevitably come, challenging and threatening our sense of self. Redundancy, self employment, divorce, long term ill health, children leaving home and taking on a caring role; to name a few.
Defining Personal Identity
For this reason I prefer to use the Merriam Webster definition ‘the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others’. It reinforces the idea that identity is unique, even within a group. When using this definition identity is firmly anchored in things like faith, culture, family and characteristics. All of which are likely to affect our choice of job, car, home and clothes but without them being used to define our identity. However we decide, identity should always be a personal choice. Rather than a ‘Fact of being who or what a person or thing is’, which sounds too much like it has been imposed upon you. Something that unfortunately is all too often the case as many of us are likely to have experienced.
When thinking about my identity; how I perceive myself and relate to the world. I find it helpful to ask myself ‘If any of the markers I use were changed, would I be a different person?’ If the answer is yes, they are what make up my core identity. For example, I know my heritage and faith have shaped how I perceive myself, affecting my attitude and behaviour. Over time some things are likely to change, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is how we as individuals define ourselves, not how someone else has decided or determined to. If we can hold unto that we stand a better chance of remaining anchored. That is, less likely to have an identity crisis or be swayed by the view of others into making choices that are contrary to our core beliefs and values. Decisions that may harm us emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially or even physically.
Your Name & Your Identity
Interestingly the Merriam Webster definition also includes ‘the name of a person’. Theoretically your name is just a word, yet we consider it an important part of our identity. We dislike it when someone pronounces it incorrectly (something I’m very familiar with) or makes fun of it. During slavery in the Caribbean, slave owners understood how much personal identity was wrapped up in a name and the power of stripping it away and replacing it with one of their own choosing.
Conversely some people choose to change their name, but for the same reason; that sense of ‘ownership’ – I’m deciding what I will be called. Women have choices around whether to change their surname on marriage, some choosing not to or making it double barrelled instead. There is a great deal of power in names and that’s why in certain cultures a child’s name is chosen because of what it means. Many African names reflect what parents want the child to be or become in later life e.g. Barack (Swahili for blessing) or Aaliyah (to rise up)
Though just a word, it’s clear our names have a role to play in our identity. As this article ‘How Our Names Shape Our Identity’ describes in more details. But not just First or Surnames but any name we or others call us. Think carefully, what names are you using to describe yourself? Are you using ones like stupid and boring or confident and interesting? Do you understand the impact this has on your identity, how you perceive and present yourself?
Ask yourself ‘Who do I think I am?’